Gulf War at 30: Learning the Wrong Lessons
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and set in motion the series of events that would culminate with the liberation of Kuwait by coalition forces on February 28, 1991. The Gulf War has long been seen the gold standard for foreign policy execution in both diplomacy and war fighting, but on the thirtieth anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait also highlights how politicians have learned the wrong lessons.
Announcing the war’s end, President Bush in his address to the nation said:
This is a victory for every country in the coalition, for the United Nations. A victory for unprecedented international cooperation and diplomacy, so well led by our Secretary of State James Baker. It is a victory for the rule of law and for what is right
And now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. In the words of Winston Churchill, a ‘world order’ in which ‘the principles of justice and fair play . . . protect the weak against the strong.’ A world where the United Nations, freed from cold war stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders. A world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations.
The gulf war put this new world to its, its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test.
While that speech by Bush was a much deserved victory lap, the high-minded rhetoric obscures the war’s true purpose, from both the American perspective, but also Saddam Hussein's, who we should extrapolate to today’s adversaries.
In 1990 Iraq was broke. It had just come off a brutal eight year war with Iran. The United States had sided with Iraq, even shooting at Iran on occasion during that war, but it was understood that cooperation with Baghdad would end as soon as the war was over. So, when Saddam hatched his scheme to save himself from himself by invading his oil rich neighbor he naturally wanted to know what the U.S. response would be.
On July 25, a mere eight days before the invasion, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with Saddam and told the dictator:
I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.
I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60’s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction.
What Glaspie meant by this is unclear as some have come to her defense saying it is unfair to say that the above quote can be taken be a green light for Saddam to invade Kuwait. Some instead point to America’s Vietnam experience and that Saddam believed he could win if he could simply exhaust America and exploit it’s democratic divisions that would lead the U.S. to be the first to call uncle.
Either way, the point is deterrence failed. Beyond all the talk about an international rule of law and order building, wars are still best prevented by maintaining credible deterrence.
But why did the U.S. go to war. It could have just said that what happened to Kuwait was horrible, but not worth sending Americans to their deaths to reverse. One anti-war slogan touched on this sentiment by reading, “If Kuwait exported broccoli, we wouldn’t be there now.”
There is a lot of truth in that, but of course, if Kuwait exported broccoli, neither would Saddam. It offends our sensibilities to wage war for resources, it reminds us of the worst aspects of colonialism and empire building that says the weak exist to provide resources for the strong, but that does not mean there are not nefarious people out there.
Saddam looted Kuwait both to pay his bills and as a grand project to place himself at the center of the Arab World. The U.S., not wanting one man to control all of the region’s oil and therefore it’s money, set out to restore the good old-fashioned concept of the balance of power. When U.S. officials went to Saudi Arabia to convince that country to base hundreds of thousands of American troops, they convinced Riyadh to welcome the infidels, not through advocating liberal internationalism, but by stressing that the kingdom’s very existence depended on it.
America’s greatest rival in the upcoming years is likely to be China. China depends heavily on resource imports to keep it’s economy growing. The justification Beijing gives for it’s growing navy is to protect these sea lanes of communication. But, as China’s expeditionary capabilities grow, it’s ability to conduct military operations outside of it’s own backyard will necessarily follow. It is conceivable that China could launch wars for resources either in defense of its energy suppliers from internal sources (think Russia in Syria) or to overthrow governments who refuse to play along. There has been widespread criticism of China’s policy towards the developing world as being something comparable to colonialism, but China doesn’t care. Neither did Saddam. What is the U.S. going to do if this should happen?
International rules are good and benefit a freedom-loving, trading nation like the United States, and while winning the diplomatic battle for public opinion is absolutely necessary, without armies, navies, and air forces, it’s just talk.
But for a long time after the Gulf War, the talking was seen as the most important part of the allied effort. The Gulf War was taken as proof that international cooperation could be a real thing in international relations. The Soviet Union did not veto the use of force against it’s former ally and China also abstained from the final UNSC vote.
The 90’s were the high point for the United Nations and for some the U.N. was seen as final determiner of legal and illegal military action. But, in the real world countries don’t make determinations based on the Turtle Bay’s legal determinations, but based off perceptions of national interest. Kuwait would never have been liberated if the U.S. did not view it to be in it’s national interst.
There are still some who would argue that U.S. military action should be predicated on the whether or not the UNSC approves, despite the fact that the Russians and Chinese both possess a veto. If the Gulf War were to happen in 2020, the U.N. would not approve. The U.N. qua the U.N. was never going to liberate Kuwait simply because it can’t.
The Gulf War came about because of ideas that many people regard as archaic. Multilateralism for its own sake and order building make us feel warm and fuzzy inside when deterrence and balance of power management are much more controversial and not as steeped in ideas of morality, but the United States is going to be reacquainting itself with those concepts in the years to come because while history may not repeat itself, it does rhyme.